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Rivalry Aside, Home Ice for Playoffs Is More Important

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, February 3, 2006

Capital Region bragging rights are usually incentive enough when Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Union get together for their two-game regular-season series.

But that will be secondary this weekend to the bigger picture - home ice for the ECACHL tournament.

RPI (5-6-3 ECACHL, 11-13-3 overall) and Union (5-6-3, 12-11-5) are in a three-way tie with Clarkson for seventh place. The top four teams earn a first-round bye, and will host a quarterfinal-round series. Teams that finish fifth through eighth get home ice in the first round March 3-5.

"We're going for home ice, and even higher than that," Union cocaptain Scott Seney said. "We're definitely looking for the four points. And the rivalry aspect adds a little flavor to it."

The Dutchmen will host the Engineers tonight at 7 at Messa Rink. The series shifts to RPI's Houston Field House for a 7 p.m. game Saturday.

There is a logjam in the ECACHL standings. The Dutchmen and Engineers are a point behind sixth-place Yale, four behind Dartmouth and Harvard and five in back of third-place St. Lawrence.

"You get more excited to play RPI than any other team in this league just because of how the buildings are, and the history," Union goalie Kris Mayotte said. "But you look at the standings, and everyone's tight and we're tied with RPI. This is why you play. This is going to be a lot of fun."

A sweep by either the Dutchmen or the Engineers would give them the upper hand in the race for home ice.

"This should be a real good series," Union coach Nate Leaman said. "I think it's going to be very hard-played. I think it's going to be very smart-played. There's no doubt that whoever comes out of the weekend playing well will have some momentum."

Each team has eight games remaining. After this weekend, the teams will play four of those games at home.

"It's huge," RPI coach Dan Fridgen said. "Considering that we have exact records in the league, and four points are up for grabs. It doesn't take a genius to realize, come the end of the season, how valuable those points are. Four points is huge."

Also huge is having enough bodies to play.

In what has been an unusual year, both teams' rosters have been in a state of flux. Whether it has been injuries or players leaving for various reasons, Fridgen and Leaman have had a trying time putting together lineups.

RPI's injury woes haven't changed. Out for this weekend are forwards Kevin Croxton (ankle), Kevin Broad (lower body injury) and Tyler Eaves (ankle) and defenseman Brad Farynuk (ankle). Defenseman Alexander Valentin is out for the season after having his torn ACL repaired.

Barring an unexpected recovery, the Engineers will have only 17 skaters available for the third straight weekend, one under the limit.

"I can't think of a time where we have been as short as we have," Fridgen said. "To say it's a weird year, it certainly is. I can't think of one like it."

Croxton has been skating this week, but RPI's leading scorer claims he won't be ready to play.

"I'm going day by day," Croxton said. "There's not much I can do. It's tough to miss any game. I haven't sat out many in my four years here."

Union had three defensemen - Rory Farrell, Phil McDavitt and Jason Ortolano - leave the team. In late December, forward Josh Coyle was suspended from the team for academic reasons. He was the team's leading scorer at the time.

The Dutchmen will go with six defensemen the rest of the way after Leaman announced this week that Scott Wheeler is out for the season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder.

Union forward A.J. Palkovich, who missed last weekend's games at Dartmouth and Harvard because of illness, has been cleared to play. But Leaman hasn't determined if Palkovich will be in the lineup.

"We both lost our leading scorer, which obviously hurts both of us," Leaman said. "We're both thin on 'D.' But that's the way the college hockey season goes. Some years, you get a lot of injuries, and it steamrolls and you're not sure how to cope. In other years, you get no injuries at all."

NOTEBOOK

There are only bleacher seats remaining for tonight's game. A sellout crowd is expected. Tickets are still available for Saturday's game. . . .

Fans attending tonight's game will be searched as they enter the arena, Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin said. He also said that extra security will be added, and anyone caught throwing objects on the ice will be ejected from the arena. . . .

Union won last year's season series by scores of 5-4 and 3-2 Nov. 12-13, 2004. . . .

RPI is 3-1-1 in its last five games at Messa. . . .

Despite pulling starting goalie Mathias Lange from last Saturday's game against Dartmouth, Fridgen is leaning toward starting the freshman ahead of backup Jordan Alford.